On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

The Story of Israel

At least one thing has changed between last Yom Ha’atzma’ut and this one in the relationship between many American Jews and Israel: we have read and thought about two challenging and highly personal books that came out this year on the subject of the past, present, and possible futures of the Zionist project. Just before Passover, Ari Shavit discussed his groundbreaking book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, at a private meeting (cosponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with rabbinical students of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Yossi Klein Halevi shared the thinking laid out in his award-winning book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, at a public lecture at JTS one evening last fall. He also taught two courses about Israel and Zionism during that semester, one of them in Hebrew, to JTS undergraduate and rabbinical students. Both books have deeply affected me. I want to share two responses to them as we approach Israel’s 66th birthday. My hope is to add a small measure of optimism at a moment when yet another apparently failed peace process threatens to drown our celebration in despair for Israel’s future.

Shavit’s presentation to JTS students was far more about triumph than tragedy. He stressed the good that has been accomplished in Israel since its founding—and still is achieved daily—even while paying full attention to the existential threat that continues to hang over the State and the moral price paid at every stage of Israel’s history—including the present moment—in order to achieve and safeguard that accomplishment. No less important, in my view, Shavit put the emphasis on what needs to be done by Jews here and in Israel in order to secure the future of the Jewish State. “A new narrative is required,” he said again and again with real passion; a story about Israel’s past that points toward an inspiring future; a new way of talking about why the State came to be and why it is important (for Jews and for the world) that it continue to thrive. Exactly. Even as we continue to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and seek peace among the various sorts of Jews that make up Israeli society, let’s work on telling and retelling that story, to ourselves and others, of why Israel matters so much.

On this point, for all my admiration for Shavit’s book, I have to say that, in my view, it falls short. There is little room in Shavit’s narrative for any part of Diaspora Jewish history, except the history of assimilation in modern times and of anti-Semitism in all times. There is equally little place for Judaism in the story Shavit tells, except as the source of the language, values, and aspirations that fueled the return to Zion but now must be transmuted into a distinctly Israeli version of enlightened Western civilization. All too often, Shavit’s case for Israel—the reason why the State is needed, the cause that justifies the suffering and injustice inflicted as part of the effort to build and protect the State—comes down to the claim that ein makom acher (there is no other place). Diaspora existence, according to this version of Israel’s story, means anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, Holocaust, whenever it does not mean (outside of Orthodoxy) assimilation, intermarriage, disappearance. There is, of course, some truth in this standard Zionist argument. Much 20th-century Jewish history supports it. The Holocaust does make Israel’s existence essential to Jewish survival. The Pew Report does demonstrate, once again, that assimilation remains a clear and present danger to Diaspora Jewry. There is good reason to believe that if anti-Semitism does not “get” Jews, assimilation will. Over against both of those dangers, riding to the rescue of Jews and Judaism, there is Israel.

But the truth also includes much else. I stand with the many Israelis who believe that the State cannot survive, let alone thrive, if it attempts to “declare independence” from Jewish history, as Ben-Gurion once put it, or—another well-known Zionist trope—“bring the Jews back into history,” as if we had been elsewhere for the 20 centuries in which Jews lived somewhere other than in the Holy Land. Similarly, while alert and vigilant to the declining rates of Jewish knowledge, belief, and practice in North America, we should not minimize the tremendous achievements that have taken place recently in Jewish life on this continent, in part thanks to close interaction with the “spiritual center” in Israel. Many of these developments—religious and cultural, institutional and personal—have been reexported to Israel, enriching the Jewish State and its citizens. Diaspora Jews are an integral part of the story of Israel’s success, and must remain so. Israelis should not write us off, but work to bring us closer.

Put another way the case for Israel cannot rest exclusively on the evils from which Israel saves Jews. It needs to focus on the enormous good that Israel achieves, and the still greater good that it can achieve, in close partnership with the Jewish people worldwide, guided by the eternal wisdom of Judaism.

That, I think, is the principal contribution of Klein Halevi’s book. By presenting the rich kaleidoscope of Israel since 1967—religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, left and right—and the movement of individuals and families among and between these groups and their shifting self-definition, Like Dreamers shows us a society in motion. That movement itself gives hope that something new and positive will come from the intersection of apparent opposites that turn out, on closer examination of Israel’s rich mosaic, not to be as opposite to each other as one might have thought. Klein Halevi does not try to tie things up neatly. He has no quick fixes for the divisions among Jews that plague Israel today, any more than for the divisions between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. But the story he tells is a guide to the story that we must tell together from now on: all-inclusive, grounded in where Jews and Judaism have come from, attentive to Israel’s immense varieties, and powered by the Jewish hopes that got us here and the determination that Israel represents a major new chapter in Jewish history rather than a break from past Jewish history. It certainly cannot represent a break from us, the Jews who do not live in Israel full-time, or our Judaism.

The Israeli paratroopers who conquered the Old City in 1967 were like dreamers. They knew that they were making history, fulfilling ancient fantasies, and were in awe of that fact. Israeli Jews, as a whole, have been like dreamers ever since, some of them pursuing messianic outcomes that have taken the State off course. Now, nearly 50 years after the Six-Day War, all those dreams are harder to sustain. And yet—and yet—there is something in us Jews that refuses to believe it has all been no more than a dream, or that the dream will dissolve into a nightmare. Like Psalm 126, from which Klein Halevi took his title, the dream of Zion transpires not only in past tense but in future tense, and moves back and forth between past and future. It says: even if no solution to Israel’s many problems is at hand; even if one cannot, at this point, foresee what those solutions would look like or even move nearer to them; the rich and diverse set of elements that make up modern Israel encourages hope and staves off despair.

Telling a new story is no substitute for peacemaking. Shavit and Klein Halevi agree about that. Getting Israelis to look more carefully into the Jewish past, and to listen more attentively to Jewish voices outside Israel, is not a substitute for getting Israelis to look more directly at Palestinians whom they have often preferred to ignore. But I look forward to the publication this year of the two books in Hebrew, and to the debate inside Israel that will ensue. I hope Diaspora Zionists will participate passionately. “I fell in love for the first time when I was 18 years old,” wrote one of the JTS students in Klein Halevi’s course on Zionism, speaking for many Diaspora Jews. “As soon as the plane landed in Tel Aviv, something stirred within me that has not lain dormant since . . . As a religious Jew and a lover of Israel, I find myself constantly struggling with my competing ideals, dreams, and homes.” That, too, is part of the story of Israel, I think—one I hope we will learn to tell better and better as the years go by.


  1. rhoda neshama waller says:

    What stays with me after having finished reading this, is your reference to the enormous good that has been accomplished and is continuing to be accomplished by the State of Israel, and the still greater good that remains to be accomplished. This is based on Jewish values, Jewish will, and the deep eternal wisdom of Judaism. Yes, let us seek and find a new inclusive narrative, let us continue to seek solutions to problems that seem insurmountable at the present moment.

  2. Mark Gary Blumenthal, MD, MPH says:


    I have zero sense of despair about Israel’s long term Future, only about Her short-term problems.

    Without a clear understanding and explication of the difference between horizontal time (i.e., ‘time’s arrow’) and Vertical Time (the eternal NOW), your discussion is fruitless.

    ‘Past, present and future’ refer to horizontal time, and your essay largely addresses Israel and the Jewish People in horizontal time.

    However, Israel was, is, and always will be our Homeland in Vertical Time, which has no beginning or end.

    Paradoxically, we are not ‘entitled’ to physically possess Her in toto until Moshiach arrives (may He come soon).

    Until Then, there’s no alternative to a Two-State Solution if we wish to see Israel survive as a physical entity.

    This viewpoint is analogous to the reality that our bodies begin, develop and decay in horizontal time, but our Souls were, are, and always will Be in Vertical Time.

    [I began to learn this parallelism when I read Aristotle’s Physics and his Metaphysics in my teens, and have adapted it to my own understanding during the subsequent half-century. I wrestle with it, as did RamBam, and as we all must.]

    Finally, I fully agree that we cannot discount Galut Judaism (I do live in North Carolina, after all) but I reject any notion that our native Homeland can ultimately be other than Eretz Israel.

    (I apologize for my use of caps and smalls, but it’s the best way I can differentiate between Vertical and horizontal time grammatically).

    Mark Gary Blumenthal, MD, MPH
    Cary, NC

  3. Shalom Arnie

    I would like to point out several issues about the book that Arie Shavit published:

    Below is a very good analysis by Sol Stern of Shavit’s flaws which may cause as much damage to Israel as the new historians.

    Shavit in his Toronto interview mentioned that the settlements are a “historic mistake” – he forgot to mention that historically the land was in Jewish hands way before the Arabs.

    Shavit also mentioned that the Zionists did not see or count the Arabs. Really? From whom did they exactly purchase land at the end of the 19th C beginning of the 20th C? From the British?

    The clashes between the Jews and the Arabs was orchestrated by the British Intelligence who organized and incited the Arabs against the Jews. Plenty of evidence on this issue.

    The Jews returned to the “Promised Land” because of the Bible.

    Shavit forgot to mention that it was the League of Nations that gave the legal stamp to establish a Homeland for the Jewish People in Palestine. Not the Arabs.

    And finally, we are not “occupying” the land as Shavit mentioned. We are the rightful owners of the Holy Land, Biblically and legally according to the League of Nations ratified by 51 States.


  4. Michael Greenberg says:

    Hi Arnie,

    1. As someone who lives in Israel, I disagree with you regarding the falseness of the Zionist trope, “bringing the Jews back into history.” You only have to consider the reactions of Americans our age or older on coming to Israel, “Wow, Jewish policemen! Look, Jewish soldiers!” and the pride and concern about all of Israel’s wars to realize how true that trope is. Ironically, Dr. Blumenthal reaffirms the Zionist claim by dividing time into vertical and horizontal spheres and claiming that we’re entitled to fully claim Israel only when the Moshiach (note the Ashkenazi pronunciation) arrives. Oh, the Galut!! :-) Basically, our argument rests on different perhaps mutually exclusive definitions of “history,” and, therefore, it’s one that might continue without any resolution. Each, each to his own opinion.
    2. Regarding the relationship of Israel and the Diaspora, again as an American-born Israeli, I have mixed views. For decades, I have held that Israel and the Diaspora would eventually drift apart as Israel becomes more and more a distinct, Hebrew-speaking culture. This hasn’t quite happened. Israel needs the Diaspora for two fundamental reasons — to promote more liberal religious options (I often attend Conservative services in my small town)and to reaffirm its democratic principles. How the U.S. uses what Israel has is up to American Jews, and whether Israel is truly relevant other than as a matter of pride (or dismay). It often seems a matter of identity: I am proud to be a Jew; i.e., I look toward Israel as part of re-affirming my identity (at least, that’s how it often seems in my family).
    3. Although I, too, am pleased by the diversity of responses within the Jewish community in Israel and the fact that we really do seem to be able to live together, the real question of integration doesn’t concern Jews at all but Arabs and the need to offer 20 per cent of the Israeli population full equality and not bigotry or discrimination. That’s a goal you don’t mention at all — and it’s very much like de Tocqueville’s dictum: you can tell the true nature of a state by its prisons. You can tell the true nature of the state of Israel by its relationship to its minority populations.

    Wishing you the best. Hag yom haatzmaut sameach!


  5. Michael Greenberg says:

    Hi Arnie,

    As an American Jew who has lived in Israel for a bit over 40 years, I disagree with your dismissal of the Zionist trope, “bringing the Jews back into history.” One has only to consider how Americans of our generation or older responded when first visiting Israel — “Look, a Jewish policeman!” “Wow, all those young (handsome) soldiers,” to be confirmed as to the truth of this phrase. But, we’re basically arguing over different definitions of “history,” and therefore, the argument (if it truly is one) can never be resolved. Ironically, the post by Dr. Blumenthal only strengthens the Zionist contention by affirming that the true total possession will only come when the Moshiach (note the Ashkenazic spelling!) comes. To dwell in hopes for the Messiah is not to live in history.
    2. For decades, I’ve thought Israel and America would drift apart as Israel becomes more and more a distinct and distinctly Hebrew-speaking culture. This hasn’t, of course, quite occurred. Israel needs American Jews to reaffirm the possibility of varied liberal religious ways — both Conservative and Reform (I often attend Conservative services in the small town in which I live) and to reaffirm its democratic principles, which, as you know, are slowly being eroded. What American Jews make of Israel is up to them. Several of my relatives came on Taglit tours and loved being in Israel. Both married non-Jews.
    3. Although I’m often surprised at how well we Jews still manage to dwell together in this oft-conflicted land, the main problem facing today’s Israel is not the integration of Jews but equality for Arabs and other minorities — in allocated monies, education, and opportunities. They are like de Tocqueville’s famous dictum: you can judge a state by the quality of its prisons. You can judge Israel by the quality of the life of its Arab citizens.
    4. And yes, Israel definitely needs a new vision. But — resolute pessimist that I am — I don’t see one in the offing.

    Wishing you the best. Hag haatzmaut sameach!


  6. Clifton Rothman says:

    I completely agree with you Dr. Eisen. Also
    we must find a way of uniting all Jews even if their views are different from ours and encouraging more converts to become Jews. We must be more welcoming then we are and to respect all forms of Being Jewish.
    We have no right to critisize Israel, that is the right of the Israeli’s. Since most of non Jewish criticism of Israel is based on antisemitism we should be positive about Israel.No country will ever be perfect and no country is more perfect then Israel today.Thank you for your teaching.
    Clifton Rothman, M.D.

  7. Josh Baker says:

    It is important to not only look at history, but to understand history and not use it for one’s own political biases. The Chancellor’s statement about Israelis ignoring Palestinians has little basis in fact. The vast majority of Israelis and Jews know and understand the Palestinian narrative. It is Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims who refuse to acknowledge the Israeli and Jewish narrative. Abu Magen claims that we have no connection to Israel. What is this if not a declaration of wariness the Jewish people? Unfortunately, it is fashionable for Jewish leadership, who often act more like leftists than Jews, to equate Jewish legitimate demands for borders that can be defended with Palestinian rejection of Jews as a people. How can one be a leader when one can not see the truth and one refuses to advocate our position?

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